Geetha Shankar, Senior Yoga Therapist and Faculty, KYM
When it comes to Yoga practice, some of the commonly asked questions by the practitioners and students at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) are:
- Why is it important to do Āsana practice with breathing?
- Why is it important to synchronise our movements with the breath?
There are many different traditions which follow different approaches to this question. In the KYM tradition, we give a lot of importance to conscious breathing in Āsana practice.
We are generally not conscious of our breath. It is an automatic process that goes on 24 hours daily – as long as we are alive. But in an Āsana practice, finding the natural link between breath and body can make a huge difference to our practice.
We need to first understand not only the basic mechanics of breathing, but also the effect the breath has on our body and the effect of our body movements on the breath. Conscious breathing occupies a central position in Āsana practice. We need to see the natural relationship between the breath and the body.
The three important organs that are actively involved in this process are the lungs, the diaphragm and the muscles of the abdomen. When we start inhaling, the chest starts to expand and the diaphragm starts moving downwards. This helps to expand the lungs and draw in air. As the diaphragm descends, the abdomen is also pushed slightly outwards. During the exhalation, the diaphragm moves up back to its original domed shape, the abdomen and the lungs contract. Therefore, we understand that the muscles of the upper and lower chest, the diaphragm and the core abdominal muscles all need to work in a rhythmic and efficient manner to make our breathing efficient. If any of these muscles are tight, tense or weak, this will impact our breathing efficiency and we will not be able to reap the full benefits of our breathing.
It is also important to understand that the process of inhalation and exhalation and the movement of the spine are very intimately connected. When we inhale the chest expands, the erector muscles which connect the ribs and the spine contract and so the spine straightens. As we exhale, the spine which is straightened, bends forward slightly and goes back to its natural curvature. During an Āsana practice, the quality of the breath has a great influence on each movement, each posture and on the whole practice itself. Since we need to make the best use of the breath, the spine, chest and the abdomen, we need to link the breath and the movement in such a way that the breath helps in the movement and the movement helps in the breathing. There are movements that enhance and support inhalation and those which enhance and support exhalation.
For Example – when we raise our arms up or do a good back arch or come out of a twist or forward bend, the upper part of our body expands and enhances inhalation. When we do a forward bend or a spinal twist or when there is a contraction of the abdomen, such movements enhance exhalation. Once we understand this natural connection between breath and movements of our body, we can synchronise our movements with the appropriate breath. This synchronisation is important to feel the ‘Sthiram and Sukham’ – stability, alertness and comfort, while doing the postures. Since the breath efficiency for each one of us is different, it is important to link it with our own breathing capacity. So we need to be aware and observe the quality of our breath during Āsana practice and always stay within our comfort zone.
If you feel the need to steal a breath in-between two movements, then the breath is giving us the information that we have stepped outside our comfort zone. In KYM, we use a specific technique to synchronise breath and movement. We start the appropriate breathing first and then move, finish the movement and then complete the breath. We make sure that each movement is within the breath. We also pause for just a second between every component of breath, to bring in more awareness of our breath and movement. These techniques make our breathing slow, deeper and mindful. Conscious breathing is also a great feedback, to check if we are within our comfort level. It also helps us to determine if we can stay in any posture and how long we can stay or when we need to get back from the posture.
This is also one of the reasons why Ujjāyī breathing is suggested during Āsana practice – to slow down the breath and make it more mindful. Ujjāyī breathing can be both energising and relaxing too. As Śrī TKV Desikachar says in the Heart of Yoga, “When we use Āsana breathing the sound is produced uniformly during both inhalation and exhalation, allowing us to hear as well as feel the breath.” This makes the breathing very conscious and the awareness helps in making linking of breath and movement easier.
There is also one more very important link that we need to mention here – the link between breath and Mind. Our breath is like a bridge that connects body and mind. The state of the mind is reflected in the breath. When the mind is agitated, it makes our breath erratic, fast and laboured. But if the mind is calm and peaceful, our breath automatically becomes subtle and long. Another reason, apart from the physical/physiological benefits already mentioned is that when we focus on the breath during asana practice, we are more aware and the mind becomes quieter and calmer. The Prāṇa energy in us flows freely. This gives a ‘feel good’ effect after such an asana practice. Any action done consciously produces better results. So with Āsana co-ordinated with breathing. We will notice how our mind stays linked to our breath and movement and we are able ‘to feel’ every posture.
Śrī TKV Desikachar has stressed on this fact – “It does not matter how beautifully we do a posture or how flexible our bodies are. If we do not achieve the integration of the body, breath and mind, we can hardly claim that what we are doing is Yoga. Yoga is something that we experience inside, deep within our being. Yoga is not external experience. In Yoga, we try to be as attentive as possible to everything we do.”
This says it all.